Saturday, March 9, 2013

Defining Heriot's Natives

The internet and our preferred methods of communication these days can be cumbersome if not downright useless sometimes. We shoot images and truncated text back and forth with scary speed. Even ideas seem to be as fluid as Instagram these days. All it takes is a statement by a person of note, and whammo! It's a fact. Dozens of people read it and copy and paste or "share" it on social media and with alarming rapidity it spreads. However, I am an advocate of questions. I try and question my understanding as often as possible - it has helped me to be a better historian and I hope, a better human being.

But how does this all relate to Indians? Or history? or anything? It is clear to me now that almost no aspect of our modern culture is immune to this phenomena. Even scholarly research has been effected by it. The smaller the community the faster the ideas spread. We no longer have to wait for the quarterly journals to arrive and greedily squirrel them away into a quiet corner to read them with excited eyes. The information is only a click away now and even the academic journals which were once guarded by dragons may be free and open to everyone eventually. This is a good thing. 

Native Americans on the internet are revising our own identities and reaching out to others who would never have any contact a generation ago. The "Idle No More" movement is clear evidence of that. Here in western NY I would never have heard of it without my social media connections. 

Challenging the old ideas of our identity and with the new stump and bullhorn we have been doing just that. The internet is a great leveling ground but it is not without it's pitfalls. We are also hearing everyones noise. Even the bigoted racist gets a voice here. But my visual/mental filter is a highly tuned weapon...

I work with some old school historians and I can see the huge differences in the way things were done in the past. The letter writing, the waiting, and the old media formats. Actual paper was the fasted way to transfer information! I have the xerox copies, slides and photographs (on Kodak paper) to prove it! 

But, like I said, things change and answers are only a few clicks away usually. So, I feel that to be ignorant is really a choice these days. 

Ugh. I'm flowing off track again. Let's get back to history and art...

George Heriot.

It was Francis Back (an amazing artist but perhaps a more amazing researcher of colonial history?) who initiated my renewed interest in the work of George Heriot. He wrote a message board post regarding an image which I had been aware of for many years but made the casual claim that it was Heriot's work. I have read Francis' posts before and it did not surprise me that he could so simply make a statement which would alter my understanding of the past as it had happened before. This was exciting news to me as I had never before heard of an artistic attribution! This could also help date the image and perhaps location from which it was rendered! This is the image in question:

Native American Indian Woman - Artist unknown

His assertion was based on an exhibit at the Musee du Nouveau Monde, in La Rochelle where both the painting of the woman in the image above as well as one of a native American man in the image below. They were shown together apparently in the exhibit and the museum furthermore attributed them both to George Heriot. 

It was always my belief that the female portrait was the work of James Peachey, another artist working in North America but earlier than Heriot. Based on the style of the work and similarity to other of Peachey's work I had decided that it must be true. When Francis made the new claim it drove me to reevaluate my earlier belief. Since both images have always been associated with each other, they must be studied together and as such I began to investigate the museums claim.

North American Indian Man - Artist Unknown
My art history training from my university days resurfaced (Mom and Dad I hope you read my blog because the years spent at University were not all entirely wasted...) and I began to evaluate both works from all the usual aspects, composition, technique and color palette. They would all come into play but only if I could compare them to the works of both Peachey and Heriot. This is not to exclude the possibility that another unidentified artist was responsible for these mysterious images mind you. I was fully aware of this possibility. It would be enough this go around to exclude even just one of them. That would be a success. I needed to see more of Heriots work to be able to accept the claim of a respected museum. I began my education into the world of the postmaster artist.

Looking at Heriot

During Heriots short artistic career in North America there came a time when he decided to focus more on people as a subject rather than landscape. Up until that point, Heriot was a dedicated landscape artist. In his nearly one hundred piece legacy, the vast majority of work was devoted to landscapes. It will be only a small fraction of this large portfolio which we will focus on. 

Heriot was driven for a time to depict the native inhabitants of North America seemingly unprovoked. What prompted this new drive? I suspect it may have come after his return to Great Britain in 1797, where perhaps his viewers may have clamored for more than just his view of the land. The desire for information regarding the "new world" was great in Europe and always had been. Artists and writer who brought back knowledge of the Native peoples or even object made from their hands were given much attention back in Europe. 

It seems that after his trip back to Great Britain, Heriots subject matter almost entirely changed from the grand views of Canada to the intimacy of people. Canadians and Indians would now dominate his canvas for the next 6 years. Up until that point figures in his work were only played minor characters in his compositions. They appear as props would only to bolster the grandeur of the epic views. The figures are diminutive and the scenery vast and mirror the earlier works by North American artists of a similar genre like James Peachey and Thomas Davies. 

Metis Falls on the Lower St. Lawrence by George Heriot

Heriot would even place Indians into the scenery in much the same way as Davies might. The figures would appear small like a footnote against the backdrop of natural immensity. They are engaged in all manner of common daily activity. They appear engaged and busy but lacking any excitement or drama. It is simply a slice of life in lower Canada after the  tumultuous American War for Independence and the dust of conflict has settled. 

City of Quebec from Point Levy - Heriot 1792 National Gallery of Canada

Quebec from the Beaupoint Ferry by Thomas Davies 1787 

The new beginning for Heriot would find him making frequent visits to the Huron (Wyandot) people at Lorette, which was just a short way from Quebec at the time. The Native community was well familiar with visitors by the late 18th c and a thriving tourism business had arisen. They would sell native "curiosities" and even hold dances for visitors. (see "Trading Identities" by Phillips) He observed the people and saw the retention of cultural practices among them, but by the late 1790's the Native people of the Quebec area wore clothing similar to the amalgam of dress we see in Canada at the time. They wear woolen capotes, trade shirts, and even fur felt hats. Heriot later would make an attempt at chronicling that style of dress in his most famous work "Costumes of the Domiciliated indians of North America" but perhaps at too great a cost?

In his works from 1799 - 1805 we see a flurry of work with Native Americans at the forefront from Heriot. He produced at least ten known major works with Native Americans as the central theme. This rapid proliferance came with a cost. I becomes evident that Heriot needed to borrow liberally from earlier works to flesh out his obvious lack of understanding his chosen subject matter. Heriot would begin to look at other artists work that had Native Americans as a focus and began to borrow heavily from their portfolios. No one would be safe, Lafitau, Romney, White were all subject to Heriots notice. 

It is not my intention to disparage Heriots work but simply to bring forth enough evidence that it becomes likely that certain details of his work cannot be fully trusted as a documentary source for his location and time. I also expect that once the entirety of his portfolio is seen and reviewed that the two full length portraits shown in this paper perhaps need further study to offer a more firm attribution.

The most obvious artistic plagiarism can be seen in the following work entitled "Dance for the Recovery of the Sick". I am not the first to make this connection but there is far more going on in this piece than just the appearance of John White's "Conjuror".

To students of Native Americans in Art, the connection is obvious. We see a man with winged headdress mid leap dancing at the head of the troop. It is clear that Heriot borrows this figure from John White's "The Conjuror" watercolor of 1585. White was responsible for many images of Native peoples he observed during his time at Roanoke Island at the closing of the 16th c. His work was widely publicized and emulated for centuries to come. Later Theodore DeBry would make the impact permanent by engraving White's drawings and further widen their popularity. 

Also in the foreground we see another interesting and convincing figure holding a rattle which appears to made from a turtle. It seems plausible to have such a figure depicted in a Native dance and we are tricked into believing the scene to be a true and authentic representation. But in fact, it is another borrowed image but from another artist a full century later that John White. 

In, an image published in the Champlain's "Voyages" 1618 (the plate between p. 99-100), an artist depicts perhaps a ceremonial dance where paired dancers are following a leading pair with one individual holding a rattle. The rattle is of particular importance here as it is not a true representation of what an Iroquois turtle rattle looks like. It was a misinterpretation from the original copper plate that was echoed in the much later heriot image. Anyone who has seen such an instrument would not make that mistake when rendering an image of it and it is not nearly possible that two artists would make the same mistake almost 200 years apart when one of them was purportedly an eyewitness! The scene is believed to be of a Huron dance. It is clear that Heriot was privy to this image as well and used it to cobble together his own impression of what a "true" native dance might look like.

Heriot was fond of depicting dance scenes in his Native American series. He remarked in his journal "Travels Through the Canadas"

"We assembled together in the evening, a number of males and females of the village, who repeatedly performed their several dances, descriptive of their manner of going to war ; of watching to ensnare the enemy ; and of returning with the captives they were supposed to have surprised. The instrument chiefly in use in the dances, is a calibash filled with small pebbles, call ed chichicoue, which is shaken by the hand in or der to mark the cadence, for the voices and the movements. They are strangers to melody ia their songs, being totally unacquainted with mu sic. The syllables which they enounce, are yo, he, haw. These are invariably repeated, the be holders beating time with their hands and feet. The dancers move their limbs but a little way from the ground, which they beat with violence."

He also mentions his distaste of the music and of the dance which is surprising after realizing how much attention he gives them in his works.

We find in "Dance of the Indian Women" by Heriot 1807, a historical game of hide and seek after it is clear that we can see a  version of the famous image of "Tyendenega - Joseph Brant" by George Romney from 1776. 

In "Dance on the Reception of Strangers" 1804-05 It appears to be an original depiction of an adoption ceremony, which is of course accurate as a traditional practice of many of the Iroquoian peoples in this period. But contrasted with a much earlier work by Father Joseph Lafitau, Heriot seems to have abandoned all attempts at originality and simply renders the Lafitau image in his own hand. 

Native American Adoption Scene from Father Joseph Lafitau 

This brings me to the original images that brought me into the world of Heriot. We see a version of the figure buried within "Reception". His back is turned and he appears to be dancing along with the others. 

We see his distinctive "kilt" or dance skirt and long queue of hair wrapped and trailing down his back with ribbons and metal brooches fixed in the same positions. The crossed bands or straps also give the figure away. He lacks the body paint, silver armbands, moccasins, tomahawk and ankle cuffs but without a doubt Heriot was recycling the figure to lend some credibility to this image.

This figure appears in still another painting by Heriot entitled "War Dance" from 1804-05. The figure in this case is pulled directly from the original watercolor. He stands in the exact body position with all the accoutrements seen in the full length portrait. The only detail not rendered is the body paint seen in the portrait. Heriot may have purposely omitted the paint to emphasize the "nakedness" of the Native peoples. Or more likely, in an attempt to subtly divorce the figure from its original source.

The curious fact about this figure is that not only does it appear in two heriot images as well as an as to yet anonymous full length portrait but it appears in yet another painting from the Canandian archives.

I saw this image first published in an obscure secondary source book on the American Revolution nearly 20 years ago when my interest in the colonial period began. I had assumed it was a later rendering of the watercolor image and gave it little attention. But recently, George Hammel sent me the entire image with the caption below. The caption as well as the attention to detail in this black and white image lead me to believe that it is the source of all the later images of this particular man. It fits within the known clothing styles of the second half of the 18th c. The appearance of the pipe tomahawk dates the image in the post 1740 range and the silver armbands with engraved cyphers fit as well. He wears leggings with the seam visible along the side, and the otter skin pouch worn at his back. The simple fact that the color image does not have these details and the fact that this B&W image is a finished piece with the title below are all signs of it's originality. It is the progenitor of all the later versions. 

The hairstyle was a mystery until I remembered seeing a similar style worn by A Mohawk Indian in this 1651 image by Megapolensis.

Mohawk (Maquaes) Indian with two palisaded villages. 
From the pamphlet by Johannes Megapolensis,
“A Short Account of the Mohawk Indians,” published 1644.

This image incidentally gets confused with an image of "Virginia" Indians in this depiction which was done only a year later. They are clearly the same person.

The hairstyle in this case is attributed to the Mohawk living at the Mohawk River area and may be an "older" style but believable and with some convincing evidence for it's cultural affiliation.

The last image I am including comes from Heriot in 1807. It is almost a relief to see a more accurate depiction of the people of his area after his earliest attempts at portraying Natives as naked painted and wild. But even this more believable image is not without controversy. 

"Costumes of the Domiciliated Indians of North America" 1807 Heriot

It remains his most published image of Native Americans and perhaps his most accurate. When simply looking at it without any other context, the laymen would gain a fair assessment of life in the late colonial period for Northeastern Natives. But looking at it critically, and from a basis of deeper understanding of the period and other artists we see perhaps the truth behind Heriots work. 

Consider this detail. Knowing now, how much heriot pulled from other artists works is this woman simply really what Heriot saw or is the earlier image from actually the inspiration?   Or is there another image perhaps that Heriot saw which is the original? 

Is the "Habit of a Wiendot Woman" in the image below from the 1780's the actual woman and the Heriot woman simply an inspired image? It is clear we must consider nearly all of Heriots work with native American themes as having been inspired by other artists. 

The last little mystery in the world of Heriots images is this intriguing watercolor from the Royal Ontario Museum. Could this be the original image that Heriot uses in his "Costumes" painting? The R.O.M. claims it was made by Catherine R. Prendergast in 1810. Prendergast is more well known through her marriage to William Hamilton Merritt who was captured at the Battle of Lundy Lane in the War of 1812 and subsequently carried on a courtship by remote as a prisoner of war. He met Catherine prior to the war while on a business trip to NY. The Prendergast family was a prominent business family at the time. At the time of this writing I could not find any information as to what Catherine's occupation was or where she spent her time. Nor could I find any connection to her possible artistic career. It is entirely possible that she was simply the owner of the image at the R.O.M. but perhaps a reader might have a clue. I have some letters of inquiry floating out in cyberspace and if more information regarding the image surface i will add an attachment to this post. 

I hope this paper convinces the readers that George Heriots work in regards to his Native American subjects shouldn't be viewed as an accurate and authentic vision of Native peoples. The overwhelming evidence points to an amalgam of depictions and a real caricature of Native life.

Michael J. Galban


  1. Great article Mike...excellent research. Kakwirakeron R Montour

  2. Excellent post, a little late in the period for me, but still a good read & great images. Thanks for posting.
    Regards, Keith.

    PS: Anyway of subscribing to this blog?

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